WELFARE benefits are an emotive and polarising issue. On the one hand, most working people will think that the UK government’s cap on benefits receivable, aimed at ensuring an individual or a couple cannot get more than what their average working equivalents can earn, is fair.
On the other hand, the fact that the introduction of this policy will push the children of some of these people even further into poverty than they already are will strike some people as distinctly unfair.
These two contrasting issues are at the heart of the furore over the government’s move to cap benefits at £500 per week per couple and £350 per week for individuals.
The government clearly thinks it is the right move to make. Iain Duncan-Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has said that simply by telling people that the cap is going to come in has encouraged 12,000 people dependent on benefits to find work.
Quite right, many people, particularly those with earnings around the cap level, will think; these people should have been off benefits long ago.
But it is also true that in the current harsh economic climate, jobs are hard to find and keep. And it is also true that many benefits recipients are keen to get a job but have the misfortune to live in areas where unemployment is well above the national average rate.
A large proportion of such people will also have children, and it doesn’t seem right that the imposition of a policy which is aimed at their parents, who may be willing to work but are unable to do so because of lack of opportunity, should also hit them and perhaps result in them having less food to eat.
This, however, does not mean that the benefits cap should be abandoned. The primary responsibility for feeding and clothing children belongs to their parents, not the state, and if the cap means a reduction in family income, it is they who should bear the pain of that rather than their offspring. Most parents in poverty have lived under that principle for centuries.
All the same, if the government is to rely on that stance, it also has to recognise that it does have a role in providing work. Mr Duncan-Smith says that across the UK, the private sector is doing that – providing half a million new jobs every week in the UK.
But a problem here is that many people who are unemployed are unable to do these jobs because they are ill-qualified to do them. So, if the government wants to make its case for the benefits cap water-tight, it clearly needs to do two things.
First, where it is able through spending on things like house construction, it should do so in order to provide jobs. And secondly, where benefit-capped people don’t have the skills to be a part of the workforce, then training should be provided.
Gaelic needs to be nurtured
ONLY by its culture can you know a nation. Gaelic, although it is spoken only by a small minority, is a vital part of Scottish culture and not just because the Scottish version of Gaelic is spoken only in Scotland. The minority nature of Gaelic is also, curiously enough, another aspect of the Scottish nation, for how the majority treats that minority also speaks volumes about Scottish culture.
At the moment, it seems as though the non-Gaelic-speaking minority is happy to see Gaelic fade away. Is that really how Scots want Scotland to be known – as a country which cares naught if a language of which it is the sole custodian disappears?
Right now, it seems the answer to that question is yes. There is no shortage of Scottish Government support for Gaelic, but one of the government-supported bodies, Bord na Gaidlig, has now reported that the public response to its efforts has been lukewarm.
It set itself the ambitious target of doubling the number of pupils going into Gaelic-medium education to 800 per year in five years. On latest figures, it will take nearly two decades to get there. Education authorities are also struggling to equip Gaelic-medium schools with the requisite staff, including a head teacher for the language’s most significant school in Inverness. Both things speak sadly of a language being strangled by public indifference.
Resources are not the issue. Demand for the language is. While there is much in Bord na Gaidlig’s annual report which speaks of more optimistic circumstances round the corner, that has been the case for many years. The Bord needs to show that there is public demand for the language’s decline to be reversed.